Good ideas deserve to scale. But scaling without efficacy can have severe consequences. When funders see promise in grantee work—but underestimate what it takes to grow responsibly—they can find themselves encourage promising initiatives to grow too quickly, to the detriment of programmatic efficacy, operational capacity, and sustainability.
For example, when a youth financial literacy program showed promising early results—high student attendance and satisfaction—but had little hard data about financial literacy gains, a funder urged them to expand from to “10 cities in 10 years,” adding a new city each year. However, when the program expanded to a second site across the country, they discovered that the organization hadn’t truly codified the program model. Even worse, they didn’t have enough program data to understand what was working (and not working) in the original or new site. After a few years, the program folded. Imagine if the organization had, in fact, expanded to 10 cities in 10 years without first codifying their model!
It is, of course, true that under-resourced early-stage organizations—especially those rooted in communities of color and other historically marginalized communities—may lack opportunities to research, prototype, and pilot programs, as well as the ability to develop initial “proof points” to codify what works before scaling. But the key to scaling successfully is planning for the long road ahead. Efficacy requires demonstrating compelling and replicable results, as well as codifying what works: specific programmatic and staffing requirements, program frequency, dosage, duration.
Attaining efficacy is a prerequisite to successful scaling and a necessity for long-term organizational stability. But budding organizations are less likely to reach their goals by increasing program efficacy and scale simultaneously, let alone scaling prior to demonstrating efficacy (as with the “10 cities in 10 years” mistake cited above). Organizations should focus deeply on efficacy first—at a smaller scale and, potentially, for a long time—before scaling up.
Read the full article about putting efficacy before scale by John Newsome, Aneesha Capur, and Igor Rubinov at Stanford Social Innovation Review.
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